Member of Distinction: Western Area — Vlot Brothers Dairy

Written by Marjie Knust
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Dirk and Case Vlot both agree they are living a dream — one that started on a napkin. Partners in Vlot Brothers Dairy and Calf Ranch in Chowchilla, Calif., Dirk and Case are milking 6,000 cows and raising 30,000 calves 16 years after they sketched their operation on a napkin.

“The design for this place was actually all written on a napkin on an airplane on the way to vacation someplace,” Dirk says. “That’s how it all became a reality — from a napkin to what it is today.”

The Vlot brothers grew up helping their father, Dirk, Sr., milk 125 cows on a dairy about 10 miles from their current location.

“Our dad taught us to work hard, to be honest with our neighbors, with our friends and with our customers,” Case says. “He always told us to do our best, work for what we want, and if you work hard, it will happen. We wouldn’t be where we are today if it wasn’t for our parents showing us how to work hard and help people out.”

In 1976, Dirk, Sr., lost the family dairy. Dirk and Case attended college, and Dirk went to work for a cattle breeding company, spending 20 years as a breeder. In 1990, the brothers decided they wanted to get back into dairying.

“I just love cows,” Dirk says. “I grew up in the dairy business. I don’t mind working 365 days a year, I don’t mind that one bit. I love getting dirty.”

They started leasing a 150-cow dairy and jumped from rental facility to rental facility as they expanded their herd. They were milking 800 cows in Tipton, Calif., when they secured a permit for Vlot Bros. Calf Ranch, and their napkin sketch began to take shape.

“We built the calf ranch first,” Dirk says. “It housed 3,000 head of heifers. We got that business up and running, then built the dairy second.”

Witnessing their father lose his business made the Vlots take a strategic, slow-and-steady approach to their facilities’ growth.

“It was tough to see my dad lose all of that,” Dirk says. “That was one of the reasons why we made the decision to grow into the business vs. building a 6,000-cow dairy from scratch. That made no sense to us. We grew as we needed to grow to expand. Every time we had the financial capability to add another freestall barn, we’d add another freestall barn.”

Case focuses on the calf ranch, overseeing 85 employees and raising calves for more than 100 customers. The success of the business has come entirely from word of mouth.

“I just have always had a passion for raising calves,” he says. “It’s a good feeling having people come up to us and say, ‘you raised my neighbors’ calves, can you raise our calves?’ That’s how we’ve grown over the past 15 years.”

Case says they focus on nutrition, which begins even before calves arrive at the Vlots’ facility.

“Nutrition is the number one thing when raising calves,” he says. “And that starts on day one. You have to communicate to your customers, make sure they know when to feed colostrum, the importance of good, quality colostrum.”

Case also emphasizes following proper vaccination protocol to prevent disease and employee training. With more than 135 employees between the calf ranch and dairy, training on animal care and wellness, cow and calf comfort and cleanliness is a priority.

The brothers meet once a week to discuss the businesses, which includes a trucking business to transport calves. Communication is key, and the brothers wives also play important roles in the family operations.